When new buildings are designed and constructed, their developers and architects seem to get the most press and public attention. But another group of participants in the building process deserves recognition: the engineers.
Developers initiate, finance and market buildings, assume most of the economic and legal risks and realize most of the profits or losses. Consequently, they are the primary objects of media interest, the targets toward which public opinion about development is usually directed.
Architects achieve recognition because, as the principal designers of buildings, they are primarily responsible for the artistic attributes or inadequacies of architecture.
Such recognition may be reinforced by the published scholarship of historians and judgments of critics. Generally viewed by the public as aestheticians first and technologists second, architects are cited and publicized for their creative work more than anyone else involved in the construction process.
But how much do you hear about the civil, structural, mechanical or electrical engineers who contribute significantly, if not aesthetically, to the design of the built environment? How controversial or creative can building engineering be?
You probably could name several prominent developers and, likewise, several prominent architects. However, it's unlikely that you can identify even one prominent engineer.
The low profile of building design engineers is explained partly by the nature of their work -- unglamorous, routine, not particularly cutting-edge, especially compared with more exotic specialties such as biochemical or astronautical engineering.
Moreover, although costly -- engineered systems can represent the majority of a building's construction budget -- and indispensable, much of what engineers design is invisible, either buried underground or hidden behind ceilings, walls or bulkheads. Indeed, successful engineering is best measured by quiet, inconspicuous but reliable performance.
Consider the most essential engineering design disciplines relating to building construction:
Civil engineering. Civil engineers design roads and related utility networks -- mostly underground piping for water supply, natural gas, storm water drainage and sanitary sewer systems. They mathematically plot subdivision layouts and prepare erosion control and grading plans based on preliminary site plans drawn by architects or landscape architects. Projects on sites already served by roads and utilities may require relatively little civil engineering design work.
For subdivisions or other large acreage developments with new streets and utilities, civil engineers must orchestrate many variables: building placement, site clearing and tree protection, topography and grading, street rights-of-way and alignments and slopes of gravity-flow sewer lines. Done well, site engineering can preserve much of the natural landscape.
Structural engineering. Structural engineers analyze and design the structural frame or skeleton that makes architecture stand up. Their point of departure is the architect's schematic design in which overall patterns of structure, such as grids of columns or rows of bearing walls, are tentatively set.
After identifying and computing all the forces -- gravity, wind, earthquake -- that impinge on the structural frame, the structural engineer predicts how the structure will behave and then sizes all the load-bearing structural members and connections, from rooftop to foundation, to successfully resist predicted loading conditions.
Being naturally conservative, structural engineers use large factors of safety to ensure ample stiffness and stability.
Mechanical Engineering. Mechanical engineers design the plumbing, heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems within buildings. These thread their way through the structure to temper the interior environment, circulate water or other fluids and detect and suppress fires.
Like structural engineers, mechanical engineers evaluate the building's use and loads on its systems -- heat loss and gain (from the sun, occupants, lights, machines), water consumption, fresh air needs -- and then design networks of ducts, pipes and equipment to accommodate loads and maintain human comfort.
Mechanical engineers also design energy conservation systems for capturing, storing, exchanging and recycling heat generated by the sun or by equipment and activities within buildings.
The mechanical engineer's work, along with the work of the structural engineer, must be meticulously coordinated by the architect so that no conflicts occur between structural, mechanical and architectural elements.
Electrical engineering. Distribution of electrical power to and within buildings is the province of electrical engineers. After determining anticipated electrical loads throughout a project, they design circuits and distribution panels, specify electrical equipment -- from transformers to smoke detectors -- and lay out electrical outlets, lighting and switches. Safety, as well as efficiency, is a paramount consideration and is governed by stringent codes.
In fact, all engineering disciplines are regulated by local and national codes that include appropriate criteria for prudent engineering design. In addition, uniform standards and methods of computation have been adopted by professional and industry organizations and governmental jurisdictions to ensure sound, consistent engineering practice.
As result, it's likely that several engineers, if asked to design a structural, mechanical or electrical system for a given architectural form, would produce very similar solutions. By contrast, if several architects were given the same architectural design problem, they would produce radically different solutions.
Architects typically hire engineers as consultants, but many large design firms include both architects and engineers. Occasionally, consulting engineers are employed directly by project developers.
Building engineering, while frequently repetitive and formulaic, is not always an exact science. But it is rarely practiced as an art.
Indeed, architects often complain that engineers are aesthetically insensitive and unable to think artistically. Not surprisingly, engineers complain just as often that architects are technically naive fantasizers.
Architects are most empathetic with structural engineers, in part because many architects understand basic structural engineering, having studied it in architectural school.
Most important, structural engineers deal with issues of immediate interest to architects -- geometry, space and enclosure, dimension and proportion, connections and details.
Mechanical and electrical engineers deal with less inspiring substance: boilers, chillers, fans, sheet metal, piping, sewage, noise, heat and electricity. Thus, most architects, intimidated by the mysteries and vagaries of mechanical engineering, confine their interest to ascertaining the size and placement of utility rooms and to concealing duct work, pipes and equipment.
Because buildings are too hot, too cold, too stuffy, too drafty, too noisy or too costly to operate much more often than they fall down, architects tend to be more skeptical about mechanical than structural engineers.
Besides, a building's structural frame, integral to the architectural concept, is permanent while its impermanent mechanical systems require maintenance, wear out and get replaced. How can you love something so transient as a mechanical system?
And it's not uncommon to hear architects voice the belief that engineers "over-design" and thus produce invisible systems that consume too much of a tight budget.
Fortunately, the mutually critical dialogue between architects and engineers doesn't impede their collaboration. Most buildings have been designed cooperatively and compe- tently, no matter what the designers think of each other. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.